Colts vs Bears: 10 Things We Learned from Indianapolis' 41-21 Loss
When the Indianapolis Colts handed out the pink slips and started hiring, they never said it would be easy. While some have prognosticated great things from the Colts this year, reality is considerably more complex. Today's game was exactly what it should have been: an exercise in growth.
Today the Colts struggled at times on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams. All three units had some really encouraging plays as well. Overall the team looked inconsistent, a theme most rebuilding teams should recognize.
Whether you viewed today as a step toward improving or a gut-wrenching loss, it's time to look at 10 things we learned from the Colts' loss to the Bears.
Andrew Luck Is Going to Struggle
Andrew Luck is the most NFL-ready quarterback in a generation. The last guy that had this much hype was Peyton Manning, who went 3-13 in his rookie season. Today we saw that Luck will be mind-boggling good at times and ineffective at others.
On two first-half third downs, he missed a wide open Reggie Wayne high and tossed a horrible interception on an under-thrown shot to Donnie Avery. He later forced a throw to Reggie Wayne, giving up another easy interception. Finally in the waning moments he gave another interception to the Bears on his final drive. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Luck looked like a rookie in each of those moments.
It's important to give him time, however. The heaping expectations facing Andrew Luck simply aren't fair. He's going to show us flashes of greatness, such as his ability to pick apart the Bears in the two-minute drill to end the first half.
He's also going to miss a few and throw some picks. It's all part of the learning process and will inevitably lead to a better future for Luck, so I suggest enjoying the ride no matter how bumpy.
Andrew Luck Is Going to Find His Stride
Talking heads will naturally compare Andrew Luck to both Robert Griffin III and Peyton Manning. Don't fall into that trap. Instead watch Luck's progress. Each week he needs to be a better Andrew Luck, not better than Peyton Manning or Robert Griffin III.
The most encouraging signs we saw this week included Luck, with some nifty running by Donald Brown, driving the team down the field for a comeback touchdown as well as a great drive to end the first half despite Adam Vinatieri's missed field goal. Throughout the preseason we knew Luck could bounce back from mistakes and today he did a great job of doing just that as the half ended.
He also showed remarkable resilience playing behind an offensive line that simply isn't up to the task of playing like an NFL-caliber line. He got up with dirt in his eye, ready to face the next set of downs. He wants to win, learn and grow. Sometimes getting knocked down is an important lesson. More importantly, he already knows how to get up again.
Robert Mathis Still Knows How to Play
Robert Mathis had a pretty good first day on the job as an outside linebacker. He got to the quarterback for two sacks and finished with five solo tackles. If that doesn't impress you, consider that overall the defense was nothing short of a mess. Still, Mathis showed veteran leadership and poise all while proving that rushing the passer wasn't lost in translation.
During the offseason, Indianapolis made signing Robert Mathis to a new deal a priority. While there's little doubt that he won't bring home two sacks each week, it's also evident that he's still one of the finest pass-rushers in the league. Signing him may be the best decision the team made in the offseason.
Like Reggie Wayne, he showed that sleeping on veterans is never a good thing to do. With his knack for clutch plays and the tenacity to make his mark, he's emerged as the heart of Chuck Pagano's 3-4 hybrid defense.
Not Much Has Changed
Let's take inventory: the Colts struggled defensively, couldn't consistency move the ball and had a special teams misfire. That sounds familiar to Colts fans, but shouldn't be discouraging if you watch the tape.
The Colts defense had early success against Cutler with a Robert Mathis sack and a pick-six courtesy of Jerrell Freeman. The linebackers looked pretty good most of the day until Jay Cutler and Matt Forte took over. The Colts are horribly short on talent along the defensive line and in the secondary. Those units have no depth and the Bears took advantage of that weakness.
Likewise, the offensive line did a pretty poor job of protecting Andrew Luck and providing running room for the backs. It shouldn't be a shock that when they clicked, the offense had an easy time moving the ball. They weren't on the same page nearly enough, but at times found a rhythm that resulted in a pretty good running attack.
If the special teams keep improving, they'll move up from being a liability to a mere disappointment in no time. Seriously, they may even become a dependable unit, which should elate Colts fans.
Adam Vinatieri missed an easy field goal to close the first half, but the Colts showed strong improvement in kick coverage and also knew when to take a knee when receiving the ball in the end zone. Despite some obvious struggles, it was the best special teams performance we've seen in Indianapolis in a long time.
Sure they didn't look like a markedly different team, names on the jerseys aside, but they showed signs that they're making progress, which is what we should all expect for now.
The Colts Aren't Likely to Surprise Anyone
Let's make this perfectly clear: the Colts need to grow if they are to win.
It shouldn't be a surprise that a young team with a roster built from scraps and draft picks struggled today. It surely wasn't pleasant for Colts fans to watch, but it should have been expected. It was a learning experience, a chance for the team to get valuable reps and experience.
We finally saw Coby Fleener show off his skills and Kris Adams proved that his size can be a big advantage (offering tantalizing glimpses of what he may be able to accomplish). The coaching staff showed some real mettle by refusing to take a knee to end the first half, opting instead on a heady drive that should have resulted in a field goal. Andrew Luck got knocked down frequently, but he got up each time, reloaded the gun and kept firing.
The Colts took an important step to getting better today: they played and didn't give up.
The Colts Can Run the Ball
While the team wasn't impressive in the run game, they were capable of moving the ball on the ground. Donald Brown averaged more than five yards per carry, yet they never looked to be entirely in sync. Most of those yards came on a couple of sizable gains while more than once Brown was swallowed whole in the backfield.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians wasn't committed to the run either, likely due to the fact that they were behind by 20 points in the third quarter. The run/pass balance was entirely off with Luck throwing for 45 of the 60 offensive snaps. That's not going to help Luck mature or this team win.
The Colts know they can run the ball at this point and should work toward a better balance of play selections. It's time for us to quit labeling Brown a "bust" and accept that with some patience he's been reliable, even if imperfect. Sure he dropped a few easy passes which won't win him any fans. But with just a little blocking, he also showed both strength and speed running off and between tackles.
In other words, give the man the ball and a little daylight and Brown may just deliver.
Chuck Pagano Has a Little Fire
With less than two minutes to go in the first half, Chuck Pagano and the offensive coaching staff decided to take the training wheels off and let the team attempt to score.
It's a spot Jim Caldwell might have taken a knee, possibly even a nap.
Instead Andrew Luck and the Colts offense put together a quality drive to bring the team into field-goal range. It wasn't a gutsy call, just the right call to make.
He also sent the right message to rookie QB Andrew Luck when he didn't shy away from the youngster after he badly under-threw several receivers for interceptions. They reloaded and kept slinging it. I would prefer to have more balance offensively, but Pagano and the staff clearly know he needs reps to get better.
Overall, it was a pretty solid coaching debut for Coach Pagano.
The Colts Need More Than Luck
Andrew Luck was forced to throw 45 times today and spent much of that time running for his life. Finishing with a dismal 52.9 quarterback rating, it was hardly the outing the team needed from its rookie quarterback. It's hardly his fault however.
Today's game plan probably didn't call for just 15 rushes, as the team spent much of the game playing from behind. Still it's a bit of a puzzler that they managed to average 4.2 yards per carry when they had no semblance of offensive rhythm. The ground game, while poorly utilized, was fairly efficient. Given Luck's struggles, Indy's going to need some solid, dependable ground support.
Since it appears the offense may struggle to move the ball, the defense has to be more capable of making plays. The Bears were surprisingly 4-12 on third down, but you wouldn't know that by looking at the final score. Specifically, they need to prevent big plays so the offense isn't always playing from behind.
They also must learn to take care of the ball. Indy's not good enough to turn the ball over five times and win. Three interceptions and two lost fumbles simply won't get the job done; if they take care of the football, there's a very good chance they could have won this game.
Finally, the coaching staff has to put together a low-risk, high-reward game plan that doesn't include lots of five and seven-step drops. The offensive line can't protect Luck for much more than a quick slant. They also can't open a hole for the backs, so they need to think sweep. The coaching staff may want to look at adapting the playbook not for Luck, but rather, the lack of talent around him.
The Colts' Secondary Wasn't Magically Healed by Vontae Davis
Indianapolis secondary was badly outplayed by two former Colts today. While Vontae Davis had some strong moments, he also gave up a big play to Cutler and Alshon Jeffery. His play wasn't the worst the secondary had to offer, however.
Tom Zbikowski was mediocre, especially in run support. He too gets a passing grade, albeit not without hesitation.
The real problem came when the Colts had to play nickel. It became evident that they have no depth whatsoever as Jay Cutler systematically and continually picked on Justin King. The Colts are so thin at corner they can't come up with a third guy worth playing. Imagine what a good offense will do to these guys.
On the other side of the field, former Colts Kelvin Hayden and Tim Jennings had a field day against Andrew Luck. Are they more talented? Nope, but they have two things the Colts don't currently have: a solid defensive front who can pressure the quarterback without blitzing and depth around them so they don't have to carry the load.
That sounds like a recipe the Colts should consider as Ryan Grigson plans to spend his war chest next year.
Reggie Wayne Is a Stud
Don't look into his eyes. Don't do it.
You did it didn't you?
That is the steely-eyed look of determination you saw. Today's gritty performance was legendary. That may have been one of the gutsiest, most impressive performances you'll ever see by a wide receiver.
All day Luck struggled to hit Wayne in stride. All day Reggie Wayne made Andrew Luck look like a competent quarterback. With gliding one-hand grabs, leaping catches and the kind of heroics you expected from Reggie Wayne four years ago, he not only turned back the clock, he nailed the door shut on Father Time for the time being.
While this game won't be one many recall in the years to come, Reggie put on a performance I'll never forget. Nate Dunlevy perhaps said it best in a tweet:
Giving Reggie Wayne two hands is God's great joke on defensive backs #unfair
— Nate Dunlevy (@NateDunlevy) September 9, 2012
Don't Be Sad Sunshine!
Those are the 10 things I learned this week, but I'd be remiss if I didn't leave you with this little nugget of joy I found despite the horrific loss: these guys are better than last year's team and they'll prove it.
Last year at this time, the team was a Kerry Collins injury away from the rise of Curtis Painter. Ominously, I wore an 18to88.com "Keep Calm and Kerry On" shirt for opening week last year, when in truth, we all were panicking. Turns out we had good reason to panic, which painfully brings us to today.
So if you were disappointed today, just remember we could be witnessing another year of Curtis Painter.